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War of the workhorse: B class vs D class lifeboats

Between them, the RNLI’s B and D class lifeboats launched more times in 2016 than the rest of the fleet put together. But which of these high performers is top of the class?

War of the workhorses: B class vs D class lifeboats.

Which lifeboat came first – the B class or the D class?

The revolution came in 1963, with a new type of lifeboat - a D class - stationed at a handful of RNLI stations. The arrival of this 5m inflatable lifeboat heralded the beginning of the RNLI’s inshore lifeboats.

I was here first! The D class on trials at Aberystwyth in 1963.

Photo: David Jenkins

I was here first! The D class on trials at Aberystwyth in 1963

The D class quickly became the original workhorse of the RNLI. Compared to the larger all-weather lifeboats, the fast inflatable boat was highly manoeuvrable. It could operate closer to shore than all-weather lifeboats, in shallower water, near cliffs and rocks, even in caves.

Bigger, faster, stronger – introducing the B class

But in 1972 the D class got some serious inshore competition, when the B class – the Atlantic 21 – joined the fleet.

The Atlantic 21 was 2m bigger than her little sister, the D class. And the Atlantic had a surf board-like rigid hull, making the lifeboat more stable. With its twin outboard engines, the B class became the fastest and most versatile boat in the fleet.

It could operate in the shallows, and had fantastic towing power. It could launch by night, and before too long had self-righting capability.

The Atlantic 21 appeared to have the edge.

One of the very first Atlantic 21s, stationed at Hartlepool, 1972.

Photo: George Teasdale

One of the very first Atlantic 21s, stationed at Hartlepool, 1972

Game, set and match to the B class?

So did the arrival of the bigger, faster, stronger B class ultimately mean the end of the D class lifeboat?

Not at all! While the crew reviews of the B class were glowing, year in year out, our rescue statistics demonstrate the value of both classes of lifeboat. Since 1963, D class lifeboat crews have saved thousands of lives at sea.

In 2016 the D class saved 162 lives (the B class saved 144). With more and more people getting involved in sailing and watersports over the years, the lifeboat’s been in high demand.

The current lifesaving team at Littlehampton RNLI.

Photo: Nicholas Leach

The current lifesaving team at Littlehampton RNLI

The D class vs B class today

The design of both lifeboats has evolved over the years.

The first D class lifeboats could only operate during daylight hours! The modern D class (IB1), has a top speed of 25 knots, and can spend 3 hours at maximum speed at sea on search and rescue missions, day and night.

After the Atlantic 21 came the Atlantic 75 (1993) and the Atlantic 85 (2005). The numbers represent the length of the lifeboat, nearly 7.5m and 8.5m respectively. Powered by two 115hp 4-stroke engines, the Atlantic 85 has a top speed of 35 knots and can handle force 7 near-gale winds in daylight and force 6 at night.

A fair trial

We’ll give the final say to two lifeboat volunteers who are in a good position to judge between the two classes. Rob King at Clifden Lifeboat Station and Aaron Gent at Portsmouth Lifeboat Station save lives on both D class and B class lifeboats.

Rob King on the D class, Clifden Lifeboat Station.

Photo: RNLI/Tom Davis

Rob King on the D class, Clifden Lifeboat Station

Rob values the flexible Atlantic: ‘The B class is fast, powerful and very good in choppy seas. It’s ideal to get to casualties quickly and especially out to the islands if we are tasked for a medical situation.’

He also sings the praises of the Clifden’s D class, perfect for search and rescue along the rugged coastline of cliffs, bays and inlets: ‘The D class is towed to various launch sites in our patch by a Land Rover, depending on where the incident is. It has a shallow draft and is very manoeuvrable – ideal for those searches in hard-to-reach locations.’

It’s Rob’s personal favourite: ‘The D class punches far above its weight. It’s fast, manoeuvrable and can tow vessels a lot larger than you would think.’

Aaron Gent, Portsmouth RNLI.

Photo: Andrew Parish

Aaron Gent, Portsmouth RNLI

Aaron speaks highly of both lifeboats: ‘One benefit is that the D class can go in and beach itself. You can then manhandle it back round, pop people aboard and power out again.

‘Langstone Harbour becomes a maze of small narrow channels at low tide and we can navigate through them on the D class. It can go into knee deep-water; the Atlantic would need more than that. And if it does get stuck we can lift the D class off.

‘The Atlantic can get to the reaches of our patch very quickly and tow a 30-tonne boat quite easily. And you can get a lot of people onboard. It’s a very stable platform. There’s a big working deck for medical emergencies or helicopter transfer.’

B class and D class working together

In a recent episode of Saving Lives at Sea, the Newquay crew in Cornwall highlighted how the B class and the D class can work together well, playing to their respective strengths.

Whatever lifeboat or craft, RNLI crews work together to save lives at sea.

Photo: Nigel Millard

Whatever lifeboat or craft, RNLI crews work together to save lives at sea

When Linda and her dog Cooper were stranded on a beach cut off by the tide, the faster B class located the casualty quickly. Then the D class crew skilfully manoeuvred through a minefield of rocks to pick Linda up get out to sea through the surf. Finally the crew then transferred her to the sturdier B class for a speedy trip home.

Which orange boat would you choose?

Ask the 306 people whose lives were saved last year by a B class or a D class which lifeboat they prefer, and you’ll probably get blank faces. Most don’t care which orange boat rescues them. To the survivors, it’s the volunteers at the RNLI that save them, not the lifeboats.

St Ives D class lifeboat and crew on exercise at sea.

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

And it’s thanks to people like you that we can provide our crews with the best lifeboat to do the job and bring them home safely.

See the Newquay B class and D class lifeboats working together to save Linda and her dog in Saving Lives at Sea, a 12-part BBC series on the RNLI’s lifesaving work. Get more stories from the series here.